With 'Monday Night Football' ratings down, should ESPN go after Sunday nights?

MNF-Logo-.jpg
“Monday Night Football” logo (Getty Images)

ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” TV problems continued this week, with the network suffering its lowest-ever overnight ratings for Week 2. If “MNF” continues to slide as a TV property, the question arises whether ESPN should heed Wall Street’s advice and pursue other NFL TV packages down the road.

ESPN’s telecast of the Bears’ 24-17 win over the Seahawks drew an 8.2 overnight TV rating, according to Nielsen. That’s down 5.7 percent from the 8.7 overnight for Giants vs. Lions during Week 2 last season. It was the lowest Week 2 overnight ever for ESPN, Austin Karp of SportsBusiness Daily reported.

Monday’s numbers continued a troubling trend for “Monday Night Football.” Overnights for ESPN’s Week 1 doubleheader of Jets-Lions (7.5) and Raiders-Rams (7.0) were “historically low,” Karp reported.

During the 2017 regular season, ESPN’s Monday night games averaged a record-low 10.8 million viewers, according to SBD. That was down 6 percent from the previous season. Meanwhile, NBC Sports’ “Sunday Night Football” ranked as the No. 1 prime-time show in all of TV for the ninth straight year. 

ESPN has done as much it can to boost “Monday Night Football,” hiring the new 2018 broadcast team of Jason Witten, Joe Tessitore, Booger McFarland and Lisa Salters, then adding bells and whistles such as the moving “Boogermobile” crane that gives McFarland a better view of the field. What ESPN really needs to return “MNF” to its glory days is not new announcers but better game matchups and flexible scheduling. Right now, those advantages lie with rival NBC.

ESPN pays $1.9 billion annually for the rights to “Monday Night Football.” That’s nearly twice what NBC pays for “Sunday Night Football.” The league, though, treats “SNF” as its premier prime-time package, giving it the best game schedules and the sole right to “flex” in better matchups from ESPN, Fox and CBS. If ESPN gets stuck with weak games, then it has no choice but to grin and bear it. Plus, ESPN doesn’t get the rights to a Super Bowl, unlike the league’s other TV partners.

That’s why some Wall Street analysts think ESPN should cut “Monday Night Football” loose during the next round of rights negotiations and go hard after NBC’s superior Sunday night package (NBC’s contract for “SNF” expires after the 2022 season). A research report by MoffettNathanson called ESPN’s current Monday night contract a “rotten deal” financially, noted John Ourand of SportsBusiness Journal. Said the report:

“One of the more interesting theories that we still think has a higher probability of playing out is if Disney instead targets the more valuable, but lower-priced Sunday Night Football package, currently at NBC. We believe Disney should reclaim the Sunday primetime package by paying a significant premium to the existing costs. Even if they pay $900 million more per year, it is a better economic outcome than keeping MNF.”

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Wall Street isn’t the only entity questioning the financial viability of ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” deal. Sports media insider James Andrew Miller speculated that ESPN could abandon live NFL game rights in favor of a less expensive highlights package after the 2021 season. Why pay through the nose for a Monday night package, asked Miller, when today’s “Monday Night Football” is a pale shadow of ABC’s old version with John Madden and Al Michaels, much less the hallowed Monday night crew of Howard Cosell, Don Meredith and Frank Gifford? As Miller wrote:

When ESPN agreed to pay $15.2 billion for its current Monday Night Football deal, some of its key executives believed they were buying the schedule of the previous MNF package, i.e., more often than not, the best game or at least one of the top games of the week. But Sunday Night Football got that pedigree, and Fox and CBS games since then have also generally been more desirable than ESPN’s matchups. With the advent of Thursday Night Football several years ago, ESPN’s Monday night schedule has been further diluted of quality matchups, and the network hasn’t been shy about voicing dissatisfaction.

New ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro has maintained that he wants to improve the network’s troubled relationship with the NFL. Like many execs at Disney, Pitaro realizes ESPN didn’t really get on the map until it landed a partial Sunday night NFL game package in 1987. With competitors such as Turner Sports and Amazon waiting in the wings for “Monday Night Football,” ESPN could call an audible and go back to “Sunday Night Football.”